by Marcus Loane

For theological reasons or as a result of what they have grown up believing, some Muslims, Christians and others who have faith based beliefs reject the theory of evolution as an accurate depiction of real processes or as a true account of our origins.

Creationist literature usually attacks evolutionary theory in a variety of ways.

I am going to address a few of the creationist arguments that turn up with monotonous regularity. This is a subset of the many they use. I have also found successful refutations of any others that I have examined.

The "Complicated things are designed" analogy

This goes something like this: "A television set is not as complex as a human yet it needed a designer therefore a human is in even more need of a designer to explain its existence."

This is a successful analogy for confirming existing beliefs about God, the Designer of humans. However the analogy is misleading. No single person designed a television. Not even a single team of persons designed a television from scratch. No single person even built a television and no single team ever built a television (which includes mining the metal and building all the components). Here is the true account to explain the existence of a television. A television is the result of a long complicated historical process. First of all, ocean waves had to relentlessly pound the shore for millennia to grind rocks into sand. The fact that sand, when heated, can be turned into glass had to be established. Without glass, no television. The existence of metal suitable for mining had to be discovered. Electricity had to be discovered. Electromagnetism and x-rays had to be discovered. Radio waves had to be discovered. Radios had come into existence by a similar complicated process. Cultures where it is economically feasible for televisions to be available must have come into existence, also by a long historical process.

Now you might point out that the people who are part of the process that led to the existence of televisions are conscious and intelligent. Indeed they are but the entire process spans many centuries. There is no single (or even many) person or intelligence or consciousness guiding the whole process and there are many chance events that were part of the process. The pioneers who discovered the mining of metals had no concept of a television yet they were a vital part of the process that led to the existence of televisions. The analogy is closer to the process of evolution (although it is not a particularly good analogy for it) than it is to a single conscious, intelligent Designer.

An analogy is not an argument. It can provide a close match to reality or it can be stretched to breaking point. It can inform or it can mislead.

Also, as a matter of logic, it does not follow that if we know of complex things that are consciously designed then every complex thing is consciously designed. It is the equivalent of saying that we have observed cats to have tails therefore all cats have tails (Manx cats do not). We can directly refute the claim that all complex things are consciously designed by observing the creativity and power to generate novelty of computer based evolutionary algorithms. These can produce novel solutions to problems that were never programmed in.

Life forms are only extremely superficially like the complicated objects we humans create. Life forms are too different from human made objects and also too imperfect to have been designed in the way most creationists envisage. They have many defects from a design or efficiency point of view. That is because they can only form by modification of what went before rather than radical redesign. For example the passages which we breathe through and pass food through, cross over each other, and this can lead to choking (sometimes to death). That is a bad design and a designer could easily have made it otherwise. The reason for it is explained by the evolutionary history of air and food passages. Another example is seen in the light receiving cells in the human eye facing the wrong way. We have a blind spot as a result and a designer could have improved on that. Our spines were not designed from scratch for standing upright and that is why so many people have back problems. There are numerous examples like this in many other species as well. Organisms really do not look designed when you know a little more about them. They have the appearance of consisting of bits of biological gadgetry cobbled together and modified over time.

Back to the television. A television could be regarded as part of nature like a bird's nest, a spider's web, a beaver's dam or a chimpanzee's termite scoop. The distinction between man made and natural is of our own making (and is sometimes useful) but it is an arbitrary distinction. We are part of nature and what we do and build could be regarded as part of nature. If we ever find a very complex object on another planet we should be able to examine it for the tell tale defects, the signs of having evolved by gradual modification. If we don't find those we can conclude that it may be designed but also that evolution must have occurred to make its designer.

It should be pointed out that humans designing things is also a natural process. All that design by humans is ultimately a result of particles obeying the laws of physics in people's brains. Therefore if creationists still insist on their complicated things are designed analogy then they should conclude that this design is a natural process. Whatever "designed" life is a natural process.

Gaps in the fossil record and fraudulent fossils

Another supposed refutation of evolutionary theory is that there are gaps in the fossil record. I don't think any biologist denies there are gaps in the fossil record. Only a very tiny proportion of organisms ever end up as fossils. There have been close to a billion different species living on earth and we will never have fossils of all of them even if we dug up every inch of the earth's surface. That is accepted but it has very little bearing on the theory of evolution. What creationists fail to do is explain the fossils that we do have. We have an exquisite series of fossils depicting the ancestry of the horse for example. Creationists fail to provide an explanation of what we have found. What are their views on the various hominid fossils? They are fond of pointing out occasional frauds as if that meant that every fossil ever found was a fraud. It is the intense scrutiny of peer review that is part of the scientific method, that uncovers fraud. Science as a whole is interested in what is actually true. The motivation for fraud in science is for an individual to make a name for themselves but the risk of exposure and subsequent loss of reputation is extremely high. There is no motivation at all for a widespread conspiracy which some Creationists appear to believe in.

There have been new hominid fossil finds in Kenya in the last year. These fossils exhibit some chimpanzee and some human characteristics. Creationist literature is often out of date when pointing out perceived gaps. Granted it is difficult to keep up with every new development but I suspect some creationists would rather pretend they are not happening.

Some features of living things depend on many interacting parts,
so are too complicated to have evolved with step by step additions.

This is one of the better creationist arguments but with a little thought we can see it is misguided. Biochemist Michael Behe is fond of this argument and applies it to some biochemical pathways (the Kreb's cycle?). Evolution works by, on average, retaining those random variations of offspring that just happen to confer an advantage while discarding the others. This means that any additions should be improvements (at the time). Behe and others argue that if some system in an organism has one part that is useless without some other part, then one part could not have evolved first because it is useless on its own. They claim that the two or more working parts would have to spring into existence at the same time and that is highly improbable. Behe calls this "irreducible complexity".

It sounds convincing but there are at least two ways to show it is not the case.

1. A stone arch is "irreducibly complex".

Think about a stone arch which does not use concrete to cement the stones together. If we remove one stone, the whole arch will fall down. This is an example of irreducible complexity. Every stone needs every other stone or the whole does not work. It is not possible to build the arch by adding one stone at a time (Behe's view of how evolution would do it). The solution is to use a prop to build the stones over, which is later removed, leaving what looks like an impossible result. The stone arch is better thought of as an analogy for a biochemical system, as that is what Behe is interested in. Each stone represents some metabolic step in a complex biochemical pathway. Evolution can also subtract parts as well as add them - it can remove a biochemical prop. Two parts of an organism may now be useless without each other, but they may have been useful alone with a "prop" which was later lost.

2. Here is another way to achieve "irreducible complexity".

Refer to this diagram as you read on.


Let us say we have some feature of an organism that uses a part D and a part E. Part D needs E to be of any use and vice versa. The challenge is that this could not evolve by step by step improvements and that D and E would have to randomly occur at the same time. Here is why that is false. Let's say we have part A in an organism. Part A is useful by itself. Then a part B gets added and it is also useful by itself. Then Part A gets replaced by part D which makes some use of part B. D is dependent on B but B is not dependent on D to be of use. Then B gets replaced by E which is dependent on D. We now have a system DE where both parts are useless without each other, and we got there only by adding/changing one part at a time, and every change was an advantage at the time it was made.

Darwin recanted

Creationists claim that Darwin renounced his theory and I suspect this is a made up story. However what if he did? We can still test his ideas to see if there is evidence that they are true. A scientific theory does not depend on any one individual's beliefs or on a popularity poll. If Newton declared his theories wrong on his deathbed, we can still test them and see if they are correct. Evolutionary theory has moved on a bit since Darwin. Darwin was unaware of the methods of inheritance and that worried him. He would have been delighted to learn what we now know about genetics.

Confusion over terminology

Some creationists confuse terminology. They lump together biological evolution (genetic change over time and common descent) with abiogenesis (origin of life) and Big Bang cosmology (how the universe formed). This conflation of terms is perhaps because all these areas are seen as a threat to prior beliefs. Below, I will briefly address the issue of the formation of the universe as well, because it is often claimed that the laws of physics had to be in place for evolution to occur.

Types of creationists

Creationists come in different forms.

What some different religions believe about our origins is here.

Some believe in a literal interpretation of the Koran or Genesis or whatever scripture/tradition they use which attempted to explain our origins. These envisage one or more creation events usually within a short time period. These are the least tenable positions to take since there is so much physical evidence to the contrary. Even if we entertain the notion that "creation events" occurred in the past this would have left its mark on what we observe today in geology, palaeontology, genetics and a huge number of other subject areas. To those who do not believe in the mythology, the accounts of our origins they describe, seem to be perfectly reasonable attempts to understand the world by people living in earlier times. It really was reasonable to believe in a 6000 year old earth a few centuries ago, but it no longer is.

Some creationists accept their scriptural accounts as being metaphorical and try to make them match the processes that science later discovered. Unfortunately these interpretations can seem very contrived and with a little imagination the same practice can be applied to many of the world's different creation myths. For example there is a Chinese creation story that claims the universe was born in a cosmic egg. The cosmic egg believer would say it is amazing that an egg is so like the early universe before it expanded. The authors of the egg story must have had divine inspiration! One major problem with the Genesis account is that plants are created before the sun is created. Any proponents of the "long day" theology will have to explain how plants can live without sunlight.

Some Christians and Muslims accept the theory of evolution but like to think that God/Allah started it off or intervened and guided it. This position is promoted by the Pope and also taught at Protestant seminaries. It is more reasonable and brings comfort to those who need to feel they are the special product of a God who creates through evolution. Some of these people label themselves creationists and others do not. In my view "God overseeing evolution" is comparable to this: After providing an explanation for why an apple falls to the ground using Newton's laws, someone insists that in addition some god is using his invisible fingers or mind power to guide the apple to the ground. That is a faith based addition and it might be true but it simply is not necessary for the explanation.

A more detailed description of types of creationists is found at Talk Origins - What is creationism?

Answers to questions by creationists on evolution can be found at Talk Origins - FAQ.

If you are a wavering creationist oscillating between the positions above then I would remind you that we have a way of settling such disputes. We have the scientific method. The scientific evidence for biological evolution is overwhelming.

That does not mean God cannot logically exist

 although it may rule out certain conceptions of, or beliefs about a God.

Another argument from theists is that even if evolution is a completely natural process, the laws of physics had to be in place for it to occur in the first place. If these theists have progressed to this place in their thinking from the more untenable positions, then that pleases me, even if I disagree that the laws of physics imply any god, let alone the sort most people imagine.

The universe starts out simple and unstructured and produces the ordered complexity around us without the necessity for any divine tampering or intervention at any point. IF our universe were created (and its outcome intended), it demonstrates so much more intelligence and ingenuity than a universe that must be divinely interfered with to guide it to the correct outcome. Divine intervention, to guide evolution for example, suggests the initial creation was a botched job that needed fixing as it developed. Most creationists by believing the latter are not giving the respect that the hypothetical creator deserves. The alternative belief that a creator just magic-ed up the universe fully formed in a few days is depicting a creator with even less ingenuity. The origins of the universe and the evolution of life as revealed by science are so economical and elegant in the way that everything naturally unfolds from just a few basic physical laws. There is far more beauty and awe in appreciating this than envisaging some kind of ongoing tampering or instant fully formed creation. The concept of a creator which agrees with the findings of science is far more deserving of admiration than the alternatives.

Marcus Loane

Note: The universe shows ingenuity only if its outcome were intended but we can never know if that is the case. We cannot even designate what aspects of the universe might be intended. It could be created to produce galaxies, life, black holes, smallpox, televisions, or something in the far reaches of space we have not yet encountered, or something that has not evolved yet. If you think that is silly, it is just your human bias that assumes we are of the utmost importance. My view, using the principle of parsimony, is that no Creator or Creators exist. Without the intention (which we can never demonstrate), the ingenuity evaporates. If we found a stone on a mountainside which was shaped like an arrow head, it may have reached that shape as a result of natural processes or it may have been deliberately designed. How we find it, is consistent with both explanations depending on the presence or absence of intention. It is the same with the universe.

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